Monaco, indeed the entire French Riviera, has no need for marketing its beauty. One good picture does what no words can: offer a sensory display of deep blue water breaking over ochre rocks as palm trees nod near harbored superyachts. If it’s not a picture, then it’s the famous Monte Carlo Casino that has attracted celebrities and dignitaries by the sheer gravity of its own legend. Over the span of a few decades, these appeals have radically transformed Monaco into the apogee of wealth.
Yet, the glitz and glamour came at a cost. Land became increasingly scarce in this small, seaside principality that’s nearly half the size of New York’s Central Park. For each monarch in power, this problem presented an opportunity as the building of new land became the solution. Although Prince Albert I (1848-1922) sprung the first land expansion in 1907, the most recent is happening now, under Prince Albert II’s watchful eye, with a completion date of 2024 on the near horizon.
Mareterra—a name chosen by the prince that combines the French words for sea and land—is a six-hectare reclamation project that will turn a parcel of the sea into land. This state-of-the-art development will include 120 residential properties (four townhouses, 10 villas, and 106 main residences); a seaside public promenade, retail shops, restaurants; as well as a public plaza that will feature a restored artwork by Alexander Calder.
This new land couldn’t be built at a more opportune time. Consider the following: According to Monte-Carlo Sotheby’s International Realty, in Monaco’s most exclusive parts, $10,000 can buy approximately one square foot of property. If anyone were to think this fact has kept residential buyers at bay, they’d be sorely mistaken. To walk through the streets of Monaco is to look up and watch a highly choreographed dance of construction cranes. But of all the new buildings being erected in Monaco, it’s certainly Mareterra that has seized everyone’s attention.
Much of this curiosity is due to the largest structure on the newly conceived land. Le Renzo, as the building is called, demands what only great architecture can: a universal sense of curiosity from the public. Shaped in the figure of a large ship, the 376,000-square-foot building features 50 residential units and appears to be floating at sea. There is perhaps no more appropriate architect in the world to design such a project than Renzo Piano, a Pritzker Prize winner who, more than anyone in his field, has designed a litany of iconic nautical structures. “Lasting architecture always tells an engaging story,” explains the 84-year-old Piano, founder of the Renzo Piano Building Workshop. “A home, for example, is not just a roof or a shelter. Rather, it’s a dialogue between those who live there now and the moments that shaped the land before they arrived. It’s about revealing the truth of the moment.” This sentiment certainly rings true for Monaco—a place that used to be a sleepy fishing village was in the mid-19th century , and is now home to the extremely affluent.
The rapid rise of wealth and prestige in Monaco was met with the new tastes and demands of its citizens. But the layout and design of its apartments have not evolved in a way that’s true to the times. One quick Google search shows a monotony of units for sale in decades-old towers with small floor plans. “There has been an increasing demand for open floor plans, outdoor space, and greater amenities,” says Guy-Thomas Levy-Soussan, managing director of SAM L’Anse du Portier, the firm responsible for the development and financing of Mareterra (Levy-Soussan works directly with Patrice Pastor, the founder of the project and one of only nine private shareholders.) “The prince, along with the founders of Mareterra, saw this as an opportunity to diversify the residential offerings here by attracting new buyers,” Levy-Soussan continues. “But it’s more than just that; this project will significantly improve the public space in Monaco.”
Architecture is always a response to the limits of the environment it’s meant to serve. And there’s few greater limits challenging Monaco than the public’s access to the waterfront. Mareterra easily could have been a vanity project that catered only to the whims of a select few. But the prince had other plans. “The purposes of different seaboard extensions in Monaco have varied over time,” Prince Albert II explains. “I have personally ensured that Mareterra meets Monaco’s real estate needs, while respecting the environment in which it is built. The development is being carried out in a sustainable way, respectful of both the landscape and quality of life, to be seen as a natural extension of our territory.” By ceding over 90,000 square feet of prominent waterfront land back to the public (including nearly 2,000 feet of bicycling paths), Mareterra embodies the cardinal rule of architecture: It makes life better not just for those who live in, but around it, too.
In fact, more than any speech or declaration Monaco’s monarchy could have given, its decision (along with the founders of Mareterra) to save the best plot of land for the public speaks volumes about their ideals for Monaco’s future. Here, as always before, architecture provides a vivid symbol of social values.
The masterplan of Mareterra was designed by the Paris-based architecture firm Valode & Pistre Architectes. In it, they understood the necessity for broad use within the new land. Indeed, if any master plan is to attempt universality, intention is necessary. And the intention to give so much of Mareterra to the public is paramount in the success of this project. Along with the 110,000 square feet of verdant public land designed by landscape architect Michel Desvigne, a pavilion featuring a restored major work by Alexander Calder will be available to everyone as well.
For so long, Monaco has been associated with its most famous competition: the Monaco Grand Prix. And while that 93-year-old race may have helped put Monaco on the map, Prince Albert II has ambitions that go far beyond the appeal of cars racing at terrifying speeds. In fact, the prince wants to turn Monaco into an eco-friendly haven (Today, the most sought-after public parking spots in Monaco are reserved for electric vehicles.) That’s why, for the prince and the founders of Mareterra, the surrounding ecology was as important as the economy. They seized the opportunity to build new land over the ocean by investing in the marine life that surrounded it. “We brought in leading experts to design homes for people,” Levy-Soussan explains. “But at the same time we brought in experts to develop reefs and homes for the surrounding marine life, too.” This meant the creation of two artificial reef villages in which concrete mimics a coral environment. Already the group has seen marine life populating the new underwater habitats.
If architecture is to be graded on a scale that intends for buildings—no matter how ornate or private—to provide the public with a greater good, then Mareterra hits the highest mark. “Our goal was to create a private building for people to live in while at the same time, giving the public a sense of access and openness to the new land,” Piano explains. “We did this by designing a building that almost seems to separate from the ground. This means that no matter where you are in relation to the building, you can view the sea.”
When asked if he would call Le Renzo beautiful, Piano shakes his head. “It’s very dangerous to talk about beauty because it may be misunderstood as something frivolous. If our design is beautiful, it’s only because it creates a sense of the infinite.”